Art / Rants and Raves

I Hate The NYC AIDS Memorial: A Filthy Dreams Rant

The NYC AIDS Memorial (Photo: Max Flatow Photography)

“I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”–David Wojnarowicz, Close To The Knives

I need to get something off my chest, dear Filthy Dreams readers, that really steams my buns. And this comes up time and time again as I walk through the West Village. I hate the NYC AIDS Memorial. Not just dislike–hate as in loathe, detest, abhor.

Yesterday, these feelings of rage bubbled over again as I walked past the memorial, located in the triangular St. Vincent’s Hospital Park on the intersection of 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue across from the late St. Vincent’s Hospital, which is now swanky condos (What a surprise!). The development company Rudin Management that was responsible for the condos is also responsible for the park, a half-assed gesture to the “community.”

Why do I hate it so much? Not only because the monument is hideous, but it also feels antithetical to the power of AIDS activism, the depths of grief and the dedication of care. The monument is primarily an 18-foot steel canopy structure that looks like a bus stop from a trashy B science fiction film that would be screened on Mystery Science Theater 3000. That’s right–it’s not even Star Wars quality. With its sleek and wholly impersonal architecture, the memorial fits right into the all-glass luxury apartment building landscape of New York.

The NYC AIDS Memorial (Photo: Max Flatow Photography)

Now to fully understand the mess of this monstrosity, I should back up and narrate its long history before landing in the West Village. In late 2011, the NYC AIDS Memorial board teamed up with Architectural Record and Architizer to create a design competition for a memorial to pay homage to the over 100,000 people who died from complications from AIDS in New York and the continued fight against HIV/AIDS. A worthy cause for sure and an apt location adjacent to the old St. Vincent’s Hospital, which, with the first AIDS ward in the country, became synonymous with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Receiving a significant amount of submissions, the board finally chose Studio ai for the job. Weren’t they so lucky?

No, it turns out because it was a fucking shit show to approve. First, Studio ai proposed a design that included an “Infinite Forest” of trees placed around mirrored walls with granite exteriors. Rejecting emblazoning the monument with names, a troublesome endeavor since people are still dying from complications with AIDS, Studio ai would encourage visitors to write the names of loved ones in chalk on the walls, which would be washed way by weather (someone knows Karen Finley’s work at Studio ai). This frankly sounded lovely to me, however Rudin Management didn’t want the architects encroaching on their park.

So then, Studio ai developed a steel structure, similar to the one currently blighting 12th Street, which would be draped in foliage. And then in 2013, someone said ex nay on the greenery. They also were going to have, according to Curbed in March 2013, paving stones with “poetry and quotes about the city’s response to the AIDS epidemic.”

Well, on World AIDS Day last year, the actual memorial was unveiled, which happened to be nothing like some of these more intimate spaces. They scraped it for some tepid ass erector set that, at best, inadvertently depoliticizes the HIV/AIDS pandemic, its losses, battles and ongoing struggles.

Now, its shape supposedly is made out of several triangles, attempting to reference the pink triangle used by ACT-UP. Then why not make it pink? Was that too…ahem…gay? Also, the triangles making up the structure are almost all upside-down, which instead seemingly refers to the triangle emblazoned on the uniforms of the gay prisoners in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Whoops!

Granted, there are supporters of this architectural abomination, namely Alexandra Schwartz whose breathless gushing praise in The New Yorker is so hilarious that it’s worth quoting at length:“The memorial’s delicate design, by the Brooklyn firm Studio ai, is reminiscent of a feather, or of a snowflake splintered into its component tetrahedrons, or of a translucent origami crane. There is something almost animate about it, as if it might unpinion itself at any moment and take flight. When I went to see the canopy, on a quick-falling December evening, it seemed to invite the souls that had once travelled through the now-filled-in tunnels below to ascend through its sieve-like portals on their journey away from Earth.”

What is Alexandra smoking and how can I get some?

And then there’s the Jenny Holzer installation. Under the canopy, Holzer carves a selection of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself into the pavement. What does this have to do with HIV/AIDS? You tell me. Whitman was gay…so…AIDS?

Jenny Holzer’s installation at the NYC AIDS Memorial (Photo: Max Flatow Photography)

Holzer, in an interview with The Art Newspaper, said, “The Whitman poem is a beauty from a man in full and glad possession of his body.” What are you talking about Jenny. It’s nice he had possession of his body because the people with AIDS who saw their health yanked around by phobic politicians certainly didn’t.

Of course, Alexandra Schwartz at The New Yorker loved this. “It is astounding to see the words of the great bard of New York’s streets carved on the street itself. You want to kiss the ground,” she writes.

Does someone want to check on Alexandra? Is she ok?

Why not chose a writer who wrote about HIV/AIDS? It’s not like there’s any shortage. I get that David Wojnarowicz–my personal preference for a memorial text–shouting about throwing bodies on the White House lawn and threatening congressmen might be a tad inflammatory for a public art project, but there are more options. Did nobody just want to deal with Larry Kramer?

Their earlier idea about the quotes and facts about AIDS in New York would have been better. Let’s carve in stone just how long it took Ronald Reagan or Ed Koch to even acknowledge AIDS. Now, that’s a memorial I’d like to see.

And yes, I know public art and public memorials, specifically, are nearly always imperfect. But, in this case, it feels like a sterile, cold, alienating structure is the exact opposite of what should appear near St. Vincent’s. Where’s the passion? The anger? The loss and grief? Where’s the mourning and the incitement to activism? Nowhere. Instead it’s a corporate memorial devoid of any emotion whatsoever.

The memorial’s only achievement is making visible the insurmountable loss of creative minds in New York due to HIV/AIDS. They would have never let this happen. And now, there’s a hideous dumpster fire of a monument honoring them. I’m sure more than a few of those 100,000 are rolling in their graves. Couldn’t we do better? With $6 million spent, that cash would have been better used as donations to HIV/AIDS organizations that are still continuing to fight the pandemic.

Phew! Ok, rant over. Do I feel better? I know I do, that is until I have to walk by it again today.

14 thoughts on “I Hate The NYC AIDS Memorial: A Filthy Dreams Rant

  1. I’d have to agree with Emily Colucci on this one. This memorial sculpture is sterile, impersonal and devoid of instilling any emotional response upon encountering it. It looks like an afterthought of what might compliment a condo development project. I suppose if you had, or still have, no immediate personal connection to anyone who took personal risks to move us forward culturally by bravely exposing their cathartic process at their most vulnerable or by the countless loss of so many phenomenally, talented, innocent, people inspiring dignity and grace in the face of ignorance. This is the result and prime example of what gets rubber stamped. Safe, distant and meaningless to those of us who understand the difference and who now demand better for those who can no longer defend themselves against such heartlessly bland installations. Please do your homework or stand aside.You don’t get to re-write our struggle by subjecting us to this clutter without a reaction or at the very least, invite any of us to a discourse decision table in advance.

  2. Thank you for writing that. For your information. There is an AIDS Memorial on the Hudson River Park at Perry Street that has been there for about 10 years. Jackson Park just down Greenwich Avenue was the last park my lover, Stephen Petrino worked on as a a Landscape Architect, as a principal research/planner for Jackson Square when he died of AIDS in 1989. The park was dedicated just after he died. It is a wonderful park and my personal AIDS Memorial and with the one on the Hudson River.

    • Thank you for your comment and for reading! I’ve seen that memorial on the Hudson, which is much nicer over by the piers. And of course, Jackson Square is a lovely park–thank you for telling about Stephen.

    • I remember the early 1980s when St. Vincent’s was a Cathoholic hell hole my lover died in of semi-detached care & fear! This says nothing but artifice to me!

    • I used to live on that corner on 8th & W. 13th in the 70s. Jackson Square ‘ s park became a solace in the 90s. And the Pier off Perry Street are where my first lover’s ashes were strewn. Before that hideous Hudson Park confabulation!

  3. I could not agree with you more (and not just because I fell and broke my hand while staring at it thinking “God, that’s ugly”). It should be emotional and inspiring and maybe angry, too. It just leaves me cold.

  4. You are SPOT ON. As a survivor who spent a lot of time in St. Vincent’s–and writing about St. Vincent’s–what the Rudin Family had done is shameful. The memorial is a joke & the park is built on the toxic remnants from the radioactive waste from the hospital. So, that’s fitting, I suppose: visitors can hope to get ill by visiting it.

  5. The first thing I saw when I viewed this statue for the first time was a bunch of interlocking “radioactive” symbols, you know the one on hazmat disposal boxes, triangular shapes reminiscent of the biohazard symbol found on medical waste disposal boxes…. Ugh.

  6. Emily, while I agree with you 100% I think your article misses a big piece of this puzzle. It was Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn who pushed through the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a venue that for Christ sake welcomed the survivors of the Titanic as well as being one of the first venue for caregiving to AIDs victims, so she could give the Rudin’s their prize in return for their campaign donations. The hospital would never have closed without Christine Quinn doing the Rudin’s bidding. This shitty little park was the chump change Christine though was enough to placate her constituents. How base of a human being do you have to be to put condos above health care for AIDs victims? Ask Christine next time she runs for some office, as she sure as shit will do. No. New Yorkers must never forget that Christine Quinn took campaign contributions from the Rudins and then handed over the hospital to them to close it and turn it into condos for the rich. She’s as vile as this memorial design.

  7. I remember the early 1980s when St. Vincent’s was a Cathoholic hell hole my lover died in of semi-detached care & fear! This says nothing but artifice to me!

  8. I just walked by this abomination this evening. I did a double take and couldn’t believe condos had replaced a place of such sadness. The memorial is a sterile bureaucratic chimera – an affront to those with memories anchored to that spot and an insult to gay history. But hey, it’s NYC.

  9. I’ve only seen the pics, just now 2019. I’ve been dealing with my own grief & loss…loss of family & loss of nyc friends. I doubt I will ever see the triangle in person..I took care of my 1st aids PTSD at the NIH in 1981 because the Navy hospital was afraid to touch them. Then my stupid sister in law getting ready for a trip to Disney asked me about the same time if u could get aids from a toilet seat…never understood y she asked me her bro, my husband was a nurse too. This is all so insane. 40 yrs later I have a new bro in law studying aids…WHY Have we not remedied this better…WHY

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